Marcia Burtt | Artistic License


By Bonnie Gangelhoff

The town of Malibu, CA, is about 30 miles long and several miles wide, squeezed between the mountains and the sea. It’s always captured the attention of artists, and California painter Marcia Burtt is no exception. As Burtt settles into her Santa Barbara studio one recent day, she recalls with pleasure how the scenic coastal town looked on the evening she painted Dusk on Highway 1.

The sky was mauve and the sea a pale aqua as she wound her way home from Malibu’s El Matador State Beach after a long day of painting on location. As she rounded a curve on the Pacific Coast Highway, it began to drizzle. A stream of car headlights streaked past her as night slowly encroached. The ocean view and moody light were too beautiful to ignore. Without hesitation she pulled her van over to the side of the road and painted in the rain.

“When I’m painting all day, the scenery gets more and more ravishing as the day goes on,” Burtt says. “When I’m heading back, it’s often the time that I am most sensitive to how beautiful everything is.” In fact, this sensitivity—this intense and focused looking—is part of her basic artistic philosophy and is absolutely necessary to make a painting. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m painting a breath-taking sunset or an empty field,” she says. “Looking intently allows you to see the beauty of the subject.”
Hence, the gospel according to Burtt is that the best inspiration is painting itself. Her other sources of inspiration include the works of painters Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, Vincent van Gogh, and Phillip Guston.

Since graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s, Burtt has been creating canvases inspired by the state’s natural wonders—from the shores of Malibu to the Sierra mountains. In graduate school at the University of Montana, she wrote her thesis on abstract expressionism. And early in her career, she painted expressionistic figures and landscapes with big, bold brush strokes.

In 1986, however, as a founding member of the Oak Group, she became concerned with creating more literal re-cords of scenic areas. The Oak Group formed to paint regions threatened by development and donate a portion of the proceeds from exhibitions to conservation groups dedicated to preservation. “I have viewed my paintings in the past as records of places and what I saw as the visual reality,” she says.


She is still an active member of the Oak Group, but lately she no longer feels the need to create paintings that are exact replicas of the landscape. “I woke up one morning a few years ago and realized I couldn’t go on painting that way. Not one more garden commission,” Burtt says. “Painting to make a record of place was inhibiting my work.” Today she thinks in more abstract terms, paying attention to brush strokes, shapes, and color.

These days she is aiming for a freer, looser style. In fact, she’s come full circle back to the early days of her art career. The only difference is that today she is a better painter, she says. Years of experience and watching other painters have taught her many valuable lessons.

Burtt’s painting style is not the only thing in her life that is changing. She has recently closed her two-year-old Lacuna Gallery in downtown Santa Barbara. She’s now using the space instead as a full-time studio, which she shares with painter Patricia Doyle. “I wasn’t getting enough painting time,” Burtt says. “In order to paint I was having to go out of town for a week to Marin or New Mexico.”

Now Burtt has more time to spend in her favorite places—like Goleta Slough, a nearby wetlands area where a freshwater creek meets salt water. There’s a big channel that slices through a beach with white cliffs behind it, and giant eucalyptus trees sit atop the cliffs. “I never go there and find it the same,” she says. “Sometimes the light is casting shadows on the cliffs, and they are a golden blue. Other times the pink fog is just burning off with a baby blue sky coming through. It’s always different and always compelling.”

Scenes that include “flat” water (as opposed to crashing waves) like the slough are among her favorite subjects. In the flat water, reflections are common, and the abstract patterns intrigue her. Burtt is also fond of painting the area that surrounds her home near Santa Maria. The region appears untouched by time; it’s a place where every ranch is still a working ranch. This and other similar areas across the state are the inspiration for paintings like Fences and Sheds at Uncle Pete’s and Stacked Hay, October.

Burtt can’t remember a time when art of some sort didn’t occupy her full attention. “I was always an artist, from the time I was about 5 and cut up cardboard boxes to make things. Back then I didn’t want to stop to eat,” she says. “In some ways you know what you like to do even when you are little. You just don’t know what to call it.”
As for the future, she says, her goals are to keep painting more abstract landscapes and figurative works—and to continue allowing herself the artistic license that sets her imagination free.

Burtt is represented by Young’s Gallery, Los Olivos, CA, and Skidmore Contem-porary Art, Malibu, CA.

Featured in April 2002